There are indications that the postponed Sri Lankan parliamentary elections will be held on May 27 or 28, so that the newly elected parliament meets before the set three-month deadline of June 2.
The government expects to control the spread of the novel coronavirus by the end of April 30 to allow parties to campaign for the polls. According to WHO, as on April 11, there were 200 cases of which 138 were “active”. 54 had recovered and seven had died.
The Sri Lankan President’s Secretary, Dr.P.B.Jayasundara, has clearly indicated that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is keen on holding the elections early, so that the new parliament meets, as scheduled, before June 2.
Following this, the Election Commissioner, Mahinda Deshapriya, reportedly said that the commission will meet on April 20 to decide on the revised date of the elections.
The gazette notification, through which parliament was dissolved on March 2, had set April 25, as the date of polling, and May 14 as the date on which the new parliament would meet. But on March 19, after the nominations had closed, the Election Commission announced that the polls had been postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
But the commission had not set a new date for the polling. According to the President’s Secretary, the EC should have mentioned a date as per law.
Meanwhile, as the government had put the country under lockdown, the opposition parties began to clamor for the total cancellation of the March 2 gazette dissolving parliament. They not only mentioned the impossibility of campaigning with a pandemic raging in the country, but also the fact that after April 30, the government would not be able to withdraw money from the Treasury without parliamentary sanction. They pointed out that there will be no parliament on April 30, to give the sanction.
However, Finance Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa said that the President is empowered to withdraw from the Consolidated Fund in emergencies like this. By saying so, the government clearly indicated that reconvening the old parliament was ruled out. Fresh elections were the only way out, according to it.
Late this week, the government decided to reopen schools on May 11, indicating that the country is going to be rid of the pandemic by May first week and that the climate would be suitable for holding the elections.
According to informed sources, the government may lift the curfew in the “non-high risk” districts on April 20, and in the “high risk” districts of Colombo, Gampaha, Kalutara, Puttalam, Jaffna and Kandy on April 30, so that elections could be held in May end.
Earlier in the week, the government had already said that it would review the curfew regimen after the “Sinhala and Tamil New Year season” which would be around April 20.
Perhaps due to the prodding of the opposition parties and certain others, who have been wanting a postponement of the elections citing the pandemic, the Election Commissioner Deshapriya wrote to the Secretary to the President Jayasundara requesting the President to consult the Supreme Court on the matter. He took this step though the law clearly stated that he could himself postpone the date of polling if the ground situation could not ensure the proper conduct of polls.
Deshapriya had mentioned the pandemic as the reason and said that it might not be possible to hold the election even in June. If he thought so, he could have set a suitable fresh date as he was expected to by law.
Be that as it may, there was a constitutional hitch too. As per the original Presidential gazette dated March 2 announcing the dissolution, the new parliament had to meet within 90 days or before June 2.
Deshapriya did not ask the President to cancel the March 2 gazette to solve the problem, but suggested that he consult the Supreme Court.
The President clearly ruled out seeking the Supreme Court’s advice. He also indicated that the March 2 gazette will not be withdrawn as he was keen that the people exercised their franchise at the earliest.
In his reply to Deshapriya’s pleas, Presidential Secretary Jayasundara said that holding the elections at a suitable alternative date considering the ground situation is the exclusive prerogative of the Election Commission. He pointed out that the Commission had itself said, on March 21, that it will appoint a day after 14 days from April 30 as the day of the poll.
Jayasundara also stated in no uncertain terms that “as per the advice by His Excellency, it is not possible, at this point of time, to state that the election cannot be held on or before 28.05.2020.”
This gave a clear indication that the President wants the polls be held on or before May 28.
Jayasundara then went on to say: “I need hardly emphasize that it is the right of the people of this country to exercise their franchise, which is their sovereign right.”
He further said: “The date for fixing the poll is the responsibility of the Election Commission and His Excellency has no wish to interfere with duties and obligations of the Election Commission.”
And in conclusion he said: “In the total circumstances set out hereinbefore, I am instructed to inform the Election Commission that the question of Reference to the Supreme Court in terms of Article 129 of the Constitution does not arise.”
By throwing the ball back into the court of the Election Commissioner, the Secretary to the President had put him in a bind. However, given the political culture of Sri Lanka, even statutory institutions do not defy a powerful and determined President. Therefore, the Election Commission may also fall in line with the President, eventually.
This is perhaps the reason why the Election Commissioner had said that a decision on a new date will be taken when the commission meets on April 20 after the Sinhala and Tamil New Year. “We will know if the country is rid of the coronavirus by the 20th of April and then decide the due course of action,” Deshapriya told The Sunday Morning.
The EC had also said that if the new parliament is to be convened on June 1, the parliamentary polls must be held on May 27 or 28, and that the preparation for the poll should commence on April 20.